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The challenge of President Rajapaksa’s second term

by Jehan Perera

(November 16, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapaksa will take his oaths for his second term of presidential office on November 19. He will be doing so nearly ten months after winning the Presidential election that was held on January 26 this year. The delay in taking oaths is on account of the 3rd Amendment to the Constitution of 1982. This Amendment permits a sitting President to call for early elections and also to gain extra time by making the second term start at a later point of time. The first person to hold the position of Executive President of Sri Lanka, J R Jayewardene, saw to the enactment of this constitutional amendment to ensure that he could hold early elections before his political popularity dropped to the point of no-return. Just like President Jayewardene, President Rajapaksa called for early elections and made use of the constitutional provision to take his oaths as late as possible, to gain extra time.

Prior to President Rajapaksa, President Jayewardene was the Sri Lankan leader who most clearly had a vision of a supremely powerful executive position that would confer virtually unfettered political power upon himself. President Jayewardene went to the extent of imagining himself to be in an unbroken line of monarchs that stretched back to the ancient Sinhalese past and ended in the colonial period with the British monarch. Therefore monarchical aspirations are not new and President Rajapaksa reflects an ethos that continues to hold the feudal past in high esteem. The government has arranged for week long public activities and religious observances to mark the event. The ability to dispense patronage, to place value and trust in family and friends above merit-based systems, and not to be constrained by the rule of law are some of the features of this traditional mode of governance.

President Rajapaksa and other members of his government have often sought to justify the concentration and centralization of power in their hands. They have argued that it is due to their wish to accelerate the economic development of the country and to eliminate poverty and the dissatisfactions and grievances that accompany it. The notion that countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, the four original Tiger Economies of Southeast Asia were able to attain their levels of economic development due to the power of the centralized state with one dominant ruling party is an enduring one. In more recent times the examples of China and Malaysia have been given as possible models that Sri Lanka might wish to emulate. But there are other models of development as well, the closest to Sri Lanka being India, which has maintained vigorous multi-party democracy and rule of law to a large extent, while forging ahead with high economic growth figures.

Slow investments

On the face of it, Sri Lanka’s economy is on the mend, if not booming, with more than 8 percent growth this year expected to be repeated next year as well. Massive infrastructure development is also taking place. A USD 455 million loan from China Eximbank paid for a 300-megawatt power plant scheduled to open next year, and an additional USD560 million in loans from China will go toward new roads, including a 20-mile expressway to Colombo’s airport. In the south, Chinese workers are finalising the first phase of a USD1.4 billion port in Hambantota. Nearby, a Chinese construction company is building Sri Lanka’s second international airport at a cost of USD 210 million. But these are all loans, which the government is taking and which will have to be repaid. Growth figures that are boosted through massive loans are not likely to generate sustainable growth. What Sri Lanka needs is what the Southeast Asian Tiger economies got in considerable measure, which is foreign direct investment, which added factories, manufacturing plants and technological know-how to give those economies sustainable development.

With the end of the war, it was reasonable to expect Sri Lanka to receive an influx of foreign investment that would take advantage of the country’s strategic location and its educated workforce. It was also reasonable to expect that there would be the large scale creation of jobs and increases in salary levels that would make up for the loss of purchasing power that took place during the war when inflation was rampant and exceeded 20 percent for a period. Unfortunately, such foreign investments have been slow in coming. Foreign direct investment hit a record USD 889 million in 2008, but fell in 2009 to USD 602 million due to the global downturn. It is expected to fall even more this year with the investment in the first six months of 2010 being only USD 208 million. These figures are very small in comparison to the multi billion dollar foreign investments that continue to pour into the Southeast Asian economies, and are small even in comparison with the Sri Lankan government’s own expectations of at least USD 1 billion this year. The declining trend is also a cause for disappointment.

Ensuring stability

There is an anticipation that the government’s budget to be finalized by the end of this month will give various incentives to induce foreign investors to come and invest in the country. The government has gone to the extent of going in the opposite direction of its highly moral stances on issues such as alcohol and drug addiction to pass new laws that give incentives to casinos in order to boost economic activity in the country. However, the government needs to keep emerging international realities in mind. One of these is that foreign investors get alarmed when there are reports that the rule of law is not fully operational and that impunity prevails where top government members and their opponents are concerned. The imprisonment of the former Presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka would be an example. Foreign investors will fear that their own investments can be subjected to punitive actions due to arbitrary government actions. Earlier, the 17th Amendment to the constitution held out the hope of independent institutions such as an independent judiciary, police and public service that stand guarantee of the rule of law. But the 17th Amendment is no more in terms of its functionality.

The message of the recent constitutional changes coupled with the continuation of Emergency Rule is not positive to the international community. In accordance with the trends in international thinking at the present time, political stability is seen as coming not from centralized and concentrated power in which authoritarian rulers stay in power by all means at their disposal. Rather, political stability which safeguards their investments is seen to flow from respect for democracy, human rights and the prevalence of the rule of law through the existence of independent institutions. There is, no doubt, that President Mahinda Rajapaksa will wish his second term of presidential office to be one that ushers in an era of prosperity to the country in which the productive capacities of the economy are maximized. But, this requires that the government should recognize the trends in the world that give primacy to the rule of law, decentralization and the participation of civil society in development. The concentration of power in the hands of one man or in the central government is not seen as desirable or sustainable in the modern context.

With the recent passage of the 18th Amendment, President Rajapaksa will take his oaths as the most powerful man in the country’s post independence history and with no one able to dispute his power. Unlike all the Presidents from President Jayewardene onwards, President Rajapaka in his second term will not face any armed or territorial challenge to his government’s rule from either the LTTE or JVP. In addition, the 18th Amendment has removed the two term limitation on the President’s stay in office and gives President Rajapaksa the opportunity to be re-elected indefinitely, which his predecessors were denied by the constitution. As he also now enjoys the power to appoint the Elections Commissioner and heads of the judiciary, police and civil service, among others, he will be advantageously placed when it comes to outdoing his rivals at future elections. But winning the war against poverty and obtaining foreign investment to promote economic development, will mean that he will have to make Sri Lanka a country in which the rule of law prevails and the sharing of power through decentralization and devolution takes place. Tell a Friend

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